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What the Woodpeckers Said

St. Ann’s Associate for Faith Formation, the Fr. Craig Townsend, wrote “What the Woodpeckers Said” about his life in quarantine at his mother’s home in Maine.

What the Woodpeckers Said
By the Rev. Dr. Craig D. Townsend
April 6, 2020

One afternoon in March, standing in my Brooklyn kitchen, I heard a drumming on a tree outside. I went out to see if I could spot what was clearly a woodpecker, working on a trunk or branch of one of the trees in the backyard. It was so loud and so close that I was sure I could spot the bird – I called my wife and we went out together to listen and see if we could find it. Nothing. Drumming, hammering, over and over. And then, a bit later, we see a downy woodpecker on a branch back there, slowly tapping and picking at the branch, with no real sound at all. What was going on?

And then a week later I come to Maine, to take care of my 89-year-old mother, who’s done something to a disc in her lower back – she’s debilitated by the pain. She needs someone to cook and time her painkillers and walk the dog, and despite the coronavirus risk, my siblings and I agree that one of us needs to do it. The cease-travel order hasn’t happened in New York yet, so I worry but I go. I spend a few days with her. She can barely get from bed to the living room chair, she’s in so much pain. I take her to a pain doctor, a physiatrist is the term, to look at the x-rays she somehow got herself to the office to have taken before I arrived. The doctor and I acknowledge the risk I’ve taken to be there – am I exposing her? is she exposing me? – but he agrees that she can’t be alone and I need to be here. She’s torn a disc, or bulged it, probably in her last exercise class the week before – the idea that my mother is still going to yoga and exercise classes here in her senior community floors everyone here who knows her, and amazes the doctor. He puts her on low-dose opiates and Tylenol, and says it’ll take at least three weeks for her to heal. I can’t stay for three weeks – and now they’re advising no unnecessary travel. So I talk to my New Hampshire brother, and he like me is symptom-free, so we agree to swap. I’ll head home, he’ll take over for a few days.

Are we making good decisions? Are there any good decisions? No one knows anything, and my mother needs full-time care. The senior community’s medical wings – the nursing center, the assisted-living building, the dementia ward where my father spent his last years – are all on lockdown, while the independent living people, where my mother is, are being careful but still having visitors. So my brother takes the reins, and while I’m home it’s clear that the coronavirus situation is getting worse. We had hoped to take a few days each – but by that Monday, after he’s spent a weekend with her, I think I should get back up there, let him take care of the sudden snowfall that’s landed on his home. So I return. I have no symptoms, I’ve been careful, and again we think the risk is worth it. I arrive, overlapping for an afternoon with my brother, while New Yorkers have been told not to travel and Maine has requested that no one come from outside. But here I am, what else can I do? My mother is still in agony, the pain meds are helping only slightly at best, she can’t sleep through the night, she still needs our care – there’s no one else.

So I return, and there it is – I hear the same sound, in my mother’s neighborhood – the drumming, the hammering, on a tree trunk. My brother, who knows the woods and knows these things, tells me that the drumming is exactly that: the woodpecker isn’t searching for food, it’s using a hollow branch or trunk to drum, to resonate, to call to a mate, to socialize, to let the other woodpeckers know he’s (she’s? doubtful, but still) there. Searching for food, the woodpecker is quiet and workmanlike – but the hammering on the hollow trunk is a public conversation. And then the downy woodpecker shows up at my mother’s birdfeeder, picking away at the suet cake I just replaced out there. It’s a small thing of beauty: black, speckled with white all over the body, and a dapper red cap on top.

At my Brooklyn parish, a group of us have spent the past two years reading the entire Bible together, cover to cover – I have a weekly reading schedule I’ve made, and I write a blog each Friday (generally) to introduce that week’s reading. We meet once a month to talk about what we’ve read, to look at favorite passages, to explore relevant historical contexts, to make some sense of a portion of this extraordinary collection of documents of faith. This month’s meeting, of course, will take place online, in a Zoom conference conversation, on the first of April. I begin to make preparations for teaching from my mother’s house – in fact, I’ve already taught a high school seminar online for Saint Ann’s School students on the literature of the world’s religions. We read a section of the Qur’an together, and it went reasonably well. I think I’ve got the hang of this.

And then my mother, as she finally started to come out of her back pain after three weeks, suddenly became extremely weak. She has a blood cancer, something that causes her platelets to rise dangerously (she’s had one mini-stroke as a result), but her doctors need to balance her medications for that with the fact that they cause her blood iron to drop and she develops anemia. So she’s under constant care and monitoring. She has an appointment with that doctor on Tuesday, so they call on Monday to say it will need to be a video conference, and could she come into the office today to get blood drawn in anticipation of that conference? While she says her back doesn’t hurt much, and she’s slept well and eaten well the previous two days, she has a hard time walking and seems quite listless as I get her into the car and we drive to the office. We get face-masked immediately, of course, but they are very glad she’s there, and they draw blood without incident while I maintain a safe distance from everyone. They ask if she has any virus symptoms, and I say no – no fever, no sense of respiratory difficulty, and her cough is the same as it ever is. She’s been coughing for years. Maybe it’s become more productive over the last couple days, she’s been spitting more, but again that’s not unusual for her. Me? I’m completely symptom-free, feeling good about how careful I’ve been at the grocery store and at keeping the neighbors who want to check in on her back pain at bay. We’re good, I’m confident.

The rest of the day is good, too, she’s eating and being reasonably energetic – she feels lousy, but is sure that’s the effects of the constipation/laxative pendulum she’s on because of the pain opiates. She goes to bed at a normal hour, wakes me once in the middle of the night as she always does, and then I awake in the morning realizing she hasn’t awakened me a second time, which would be normal. Even desirable. So I go into her room to wake her and get the dog out, and I can barely get her out of bed. She’s so weak it’s frightening. We’re supposed to video with her blood doctor at 3:00, but I can’t wait that long – I call the office and say she’s really weak, can they call me with the blood test results because maybe she’s severely anemic? She has been before, it wouldn’t be a surprise.

The nurse practitioner who’s been caring for her for years calls back and says her blood is fine, let’s FaceTime. I hold the phone up to my mother and the nurse says, My God, Sara, you look terrible. She tells me I need to get her to the hospital immediately. I get her in the car and drive her over, I tell everyone (from the driver’s seat, they don’t want me moving, everyone is gowned, I know how bad things have gotten) the history of her issues, of my time with her, of how careful we’ve been, of how I have no symptoms, and that’s good, right? I drive home in dread after they call me to say they’re admitting her, maybe it’s just pneumonia – would that be a good thing? She’s six weeks from turning 90.

The next day she is diagnosed positive with the coronavirus, and by that afternoon she’s in the ICU, having declined precipitously over 24 hours: fever, terrible respiratory distress, high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation. But they get her stabilized, and control the cardiac issues and have her on hi-flow oxygen, and she’s been in that same state for seven days now, holding her own but not improving. I stew over whether I exposed her somehow – one doctor at the hospital says I’m probably an asymptomatic carrier. The CDC person who calls – we’re statistics now, her as a positive, me as a potential positive – argues that while that is certainly possible, she could well have had the virus for weeks and the pain meds and related effects have been masking it. We knew we were taking a risk, all of my three siblings and I, deciding to have both me and my brother come to help her in turn, but what else were we to do? No one I’ve talked with disputes that, but still.

Now I’m under quarantine in her house here in Maine, in this senior community, allowed outside only to walk her 13-year-old deaf golden retriever – one sweet old dog who is my only company. I miss my family terribly, and I wish that I could visit my mother in the hospital – but I can’t, just as my siblings who are hundreds and thousands of miles away can’t. I still have no symptoms. And I don’t know whether my mother is fighting to live or just dying in a slow and horrible way. So I sit here and try to connect with friends and family as I can.

When I held the monthly Zoom meeting with my parish group, to discuss a group of epistles – from Ephesians through Philemon, a weird and strangely wonderful group of readings – I thought it would be important to talk about these readings in our contemporary pandemic context. I decided to start with a passage from the Letter to the Philippians, one of Paul’s authentic letters that is also authentically affectionate. He’s writing to a congregation that he founded, that he clearly loves, and whose very presence and continuing faith is a source of hope and solace to him. For he’s writing to them from prison – in Rome, maybe, or in Caesarea, or most likely in Ephesus, though no one knows for sure – and he has this beautiful passage, extraordinary under the circumstances: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say rejoice.” So I asked everyone on that Zoom screen to begin by telling me something, under our present circumstances of isolation and/or quarantine, having told them my situation in Maine so that they would keep my mother in their prayers – tell us something for which they could rejoice. The first couple people mentioned the flowers they saw popping up outside, the message of hope that spring brings every year, and a couple of others mentioned the birds they saw outside, with the same symbolism. Then others chimed in about the videotaped services the parish was offering, the sense of connection they found in that and in other forms of online communication. One said how much he had looked forward to this session itself as a way of connecting, of escaping his isolation for a bit.

So I told them about the woodpeckers, the drumming calls to connect, to find a mate, to rejoin a longtime partner, to tell the world of their presence. Our Zoom conferences, our FaceTime happy hours, our banging pots out our windows to tell the health workers how much we value and admire them, are our versions of drumming on tree trunks, of calling out to connect. I didn’t understand how much that would matter when this all started, how bad this was going to be: it was this looming thing that I thought we had been sufficiently careful about, that we’d be ok. Now I know better, that this virus is some strange entity touching all of us, all over the world. So now I think I need to hear what the woodpeckers have to say. We are creatures, like them, and like them and every other creature in God’s creation, we are driven to connect. What we want to say is not really important – I’m sorry, please get better, please don’t get sick – all our wishes and hopes that now are so much clearer and starker than when this story started. What we have to say is inadequate to express what we want or need or wish we could say – which is finally love, pure and simple, love in its most basic and powerful sense. We love each other. We wish each other well. We need to know that we are still connected. I need my mother to live, I need my mother to let go if she needs to let go. I tell her that, maybe she understands. Our unfinished stories are exhausting. But what the woodpecker says: only connect. We need, more than ever in this week of holiness, to love.

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